Effective Altruism & Ethically Questionable Cookies

Effective Altruism & Ethically Questionable Cookies March 5, 2015

(from Wikimedia Commons)
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this week, I linked to the Yale Effective Altruists’ writeup of my visit (my radio program on Effective Altruism and Christian Charity is here).  Today, Slate Star Codex has a post up that’s a nice encapsulation of my discomfort with the more totalizing part of EA.

Peter Singer talks about widening circles of concern. First you move from total selfishness to an understanding that your friends and family are people just like you and need to be treated with respect and understanding. Then you go from just your friends and family to everyone in your community. Then you go from just your community to all humanity. Then you go from just humanity to all animals.

By the time most people figure out what they’re doing they already accept at least friends, family, and community. But going from “just my community” to “also foreigners” is a difficult step that’s kind of at the heart of the effective altruism movement. In the same way that allowing animals into the circle of concern totally pushes out the value of all humans, allowing starving Third World people into the circle of concern totally pushes out most First World charities like art museums and school music programs and holiday food drives. This is a scary discovery and most people shy away from it. Effective altruists are the people who are selected for not having shied away from it. So why shy away from doing the same with animals?

It’s a good question. After thinking about it for a while, I think my answer is that I never actually completed the process of widening my circles of concern and neither has anybody else, and because I’m thinking about this one in an abstract intellectual way I’m imagining actually completing it, which would be much scarier than the incomplete things I’ve done before.

Like, although I acknowledge my friends and family as important people whom I should try to help, in reality I don’t treat them as quite as important as myself. If my brother asked me for money, I’d lend it to him, but I wouldn’t give him exactly half my money no-strings-attached on the grounds that he is exactly as important to me as I am.

Last night, I did something that doesn’t fit into this kind of EA framework.  I made cookies, some of which my roommates and I (and my building’s doorperson) ate, and the rest of which are in the mail to a friend.  To make them, I consumed:

  1. Time — two episodes of Bones worth (plus stoppage time) which I could have converted into money by doing SAT tutoring instead
  2. Money — in the form of groceries spending
  3. Money — in the form of postage

Plausibly, especially if I imagine I could have been doing SAT tutoring, I “spent” at least $100 on the cookies last night — a full third of what I donated last year in our vaccination/donation drive.

I don’t feel very bad about it, for a couple of reasons.

There’s the budgeting reason — I spent cookie time from my budget not of work time, but of leisure time, and I’m never going to allocate that time to money-producing tasks, whether because I’m lazy/selfish or because if I ran the numbers, I’d be less effective at earning money with less leisure time.  This isn’t my real reason, though — if I cared primarily about converting my time into bednets, I’d be a programmer.

There’s the bulwark against scrupulosity cycles reason — It’s better to stick a level of donation/do-gooding that you can actually do (occasionally adjusting as your capacity changes) than one that you can’t sustain and will mire you in self-loathing, unable to act.  Also not my actual reason — scrupulosity isn’t a big anxiety trigger for me, I’m more of a starfish on the seashore gal.


Here, I care more about the need for particularized love.  There are things we need simply because we’re humans (inoculation against disease, etc) that can come from anyone.  Then there are things we want from someone who wants to give them to us particularly (your friend sitting with you while you’re sick, as opposed to just being supervised).  See here Eve’s post about the longing to come first for someone.   That kind of service isn’t fungible the way that money is, and it can’t be offered to a stranger who remains a stranger.  I want to offer both this kind of help and the more generic (but desperately needed!) help that groups like GiveWell promote.

I also care about offering an icon of the world I want to build.  On the day that malaria joins smallpox and rinderpest in the graveyard of eradicated diseases, I’ll be happy, but not satisfied.  I want people to have freedom from disease and crippling poverty so they have more freedom to live with and for others.  I want to put some, but not all of my resources to building up the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, but I want to reserve something to build up and live the kind of life I want people to have.

Browse Our Archives